This interview is part of the Leading Asia series featuring in-depth conversations with the region's most influential leaders on what it takes to lead in Asia today.
Infosys’s cofounder and nonexecutive chairman, Nandan Nilekani, has a message for tech entrepreneurs and leaders around the world: “Use technology in a way that benefits people.” He has played a central role in kickstarting India’s digital public infrastructure journey, which has had a transformative impact on people’s lives and work. Having built Infosys into a global IT giant, Nilekani has spent the last 13-plus years helping the Indian government develop open-source technology to solve societal problems. He led the rollout of a digital identity card called Aadhaar, after the Hindi word meaning “foundation,” which has helped millions of Indians get their first official proof of identity. The world’s largest biometric program, Aadhaar enables previously unbanked people to open accounts and gain financial inclusion. He also helped develop Unified Payments Interface (UPI), a mobile-first, real-time payments system that has democratized digital payments in India and created another entry point to financial inclusion. His latest mission includes creating an open technology network for India’s e-commerce market to help smaller merchants and retailers compete with larger tech companies.
Nilekani’s entrepreneurial pursuits are all backed by his philosophy that technology can be a means for social good. He believes that while markets play a huge role in enabling the widespread adoption of digital technology, some things must be provided as public infrastructure. As he told McKinsey’s Gautam Kumra, “If a billion people can use something, then that’s a benefit. A billion people can learn, get better healthcare, and change jobs using technology.”
This is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Mapping India’s digital future
McKinsey: India has built great momentum in its digitization journey. How do you see India’s current digital infrastructure evolving?
Nandan Nilekani: Since 2009, India has been rolling out what we call population-scale digital infrastructure, which is available to everyone. It is delivered at a very high volume and very low cost—free, in many cases—and has made a huge impact on India’s digital journey.
When I retired from Infosys and joined the government in 2009, we rolled out the digital ID system called Aadhaar. Rather than just relying on a company’s ID, we wanted to have an impartial ID as a means of authenticating one’s identity. Today, 1.3 billion people have an Aadhaar ID; and there are 50 million authentications a day. It is embedded in the fabric of the country.
After this, when I became an adviser to the National Payments Corporation of India, we conceived the Unified Payments Interface [UPI], a next-generation, mobile-first, real-time payment system, which has been a spectacular success. In the previous financial year, $1 trillion worth of transactions were made through UPI. When I go for a walk and see a lady with a vegetable cart taking UPI payments, that is when I know that we did something that touched people.
We have built a lot of stuff over the last ten years. But the next ten years will see a lot more and newer ways of using digital technology for public good. We are really in the middle of that journey. During the pandemic, one of the things India did right was build a national platform for vaccination. The digital vaccination certificate module has issued 1.8 billion vaccination certificates in total and is now being used in five countries. While people in many countries got handwritten notes on paper vaccination cards, India has been fully digital from day one.
One of the next big things getting rolled out in the financial sector is called the account aggregator [network], which allows individuals to use their own data for their benefit.1 The idea is that if I’m a consumer, I can use my digital trail to get access to credit or personal finance. If I’m a small business, I can use it to get working capital. This will help democratize and transform finance in India. The other big thing is called the Open Network for Digital Commerce.2 The idea is to disaggregate commerce, and have suppliers, distributors, logistics companies, and consumer apps interoperate through protocols. This unbundling of e-commerce will help consumers discover a product from anyone and buy from anyone. This can apply not only to commerce but even to services and tourism.
McKinsey: As you look to the future, do you think India will be able to export some of these innovations?
Nandan Nilekani: Yes, I think there’s huge interest in this. The Modular Open Source Identity Platform [MOSIP], for example, is being rolled out in multiple countries right now.3 UPI has just started to roll out in Nepal and Bhutan. UPI’s payment system is also being connected to the Singapore payment system for real-time movement. We just had a workshop in Paris recently, where the government has been looking at the account aggregator framework.
Across the world, especially after the pandemic, people have realized that the world has become digitally dependent. While markets play a huge role in digital technology, there are going to be some things that have to be provided more as public infrastructure.
McKinsey: Within the technology sphere, IT services and start-ups are two areas witnessing rapid growth in India. How do you see the evolution of these two industries?
Nandan Nilekani: I’m excited with where the Indian IT services industry is. It took 30 years for it to become a $100 billion industry in revenue. The next $100 billion came in ten years. The third $100 billion will come in three to four years. Even in terms of employees, it’s an industry that took 40 years to reach 4.5 million. It will reach nine to ten million people in the next ten years.
This will have massive implications on the economy. [The industry] will be a bigger part of the GDP. It will drive consequential job creation. All this is happening because after the digital acceleration of the pandemic, technology spending across the world has gone up dramatically. It is all about digitizing and transforming companies. And India is where the resources are; there’s nowhere else in the world where you can train 500,000 people a year to develop software. I think start-ups have also reached a tipping point. I live in Bangalore, which is the epicenter of the start-up world. The entrepreneurs here are young, confident people who are global in mindset and have big ideas. You are also seeing a cycle where people who are at the top rungs of companies are becoming founders themselves. Capital has begun to flow in a big way from domestic and global sources. We now have all the ingredients in place—capital, entrepreneurs, stories of success, and liquidity, either by selling the company or going public. I believe that in the next ten years, you will actually see these people making a material impact on the country at scale. Somebody will transform education. Somebody will transform healthcare. Somebody else will transform the supply chain of fruits and vegetables.
Navigating digitization and uncertainty as a leader
McKinsey: In your position at Infosys, you have a ringside view into how your clients are coping with digital transformation. What are some of their biggest challenges?
Nandan Nilekani: Until 2008, technology was led by enterprises; they decided what technology was coming. With the rise of the smartphone, technology started being led instead by consumer companies. They brought in a lot of things that were not in the enterprises, such as how to make applications simple, the consumerization of the user experience, and how to handle big data.
In some sense, the enterprises were left behind. They did not have cybersecurity, which became a big issue. Four or five years ago, however, enterprises started to implement these things, for example by making their applications simpler, delivering more mobile-first applications, and using AI in small ways.
The pandemic dramatically accelerated these trends. How to be digital has become the central theme in every boardroom now. All our clients are grappling with how to change their infrastructure, which is often not designed for this kind of flexibility and agility, and it requires adapting legacy systems to modern techniques. Part of the challenge is just understanding what needs to be done. It is also a mindset shift, because digital-first thinking is very different thinking. The internet consumer companies were digital first by nature. If they were delivering a phone to somebody in a small town, they would never meet the customers in person, so they had to do everything digitally. Whereas, if your business was built in the physical world, as a retailer or a salesperson, for example, you are suddenly realizing that switching to digital-first thinking is a bigger change than we thought.
McKinsey: The world has also become a more complex place, with recent geopolitics, inflation complexity, rocketing energy prices, excessive liquidity, and digitization challenges. How do you personally keep adapting and learning?
Nandan Nilekani: In the last 40 years, I think we have gone through every transition: mainframes to minicomputers to LANs [local area networks] to internet to smartphones to AI. It has been fun understanding and riding these waves.
I spend a lot of time absorbing and learning things. For me, the big challenge is how to separate the signal from the noise. The world is very noisy, with all the social media, [news] headlines, and a new development happening every day. It is very easy to get swayed by the noise. The [key] is to be able to step back from the noise and see the patterns and signals. I do that through reading, and talking to people all over the world. I spend a lot of time absorbing and learning things. I try to keep taking in multidimensional input, and then spend time on pattern recognition.
McKinsey: Speaking of riding waves, one of the things we often talk about at McKinsey is how a leader has to go through different S-curves. How have you dealt with such S-curves in your journey?
Nandan Nilekani: I make it a point to keep myself up to date on what is happening in the world, be it technology, geopolitics, or business. I’m constantly looking for what is coming down the road, and whenever possible, anticipating that change in the organization. I’m increasingly beginning to realize that the way I think about strategy is not whether it will be A or B, but whether we have built in the flexibility to do A or B.
I’m increasingly beginning to realize that the way I think about strategy is not whether it will be A or B, but whether we have built in the flexibility to do A or B.
For example, none of us saw the pandemic [coming], but Infosys had made investments for working from home prior to that. We had built the required digital infrastructure and security. Of course, the numbers were much less, with the assumption being that 10 percent of the people would work from home. But it was because of this that we were able to move more quickly than most of our peer companies in the industry when the pandemic happened.
Building a healthier relationship with technology
McKinsey: You recently coauthored a book called The Art of Bitfulness: Keeping Calm in the Digital World [Penguin, January 2022], which explores our relationship with the digital world. What was the motivation behind writing this book?
Nandan Nilekani: During the pandemic, people became more digitally dependent. A lot of it was driven by the attention economy. The basic revenue model of the internet has been advertising. Advertising means that you have to get people to spend a lot of time on their devices. To do that, you have to build [products] like TikTok that keep people engaged.
I realized that we needed some rules for people on how they can live with technology. Historically, there have been two schools of thought. The first says, “Become a monk and don’t use technology.” The second is about how “big tech is bad and we should do something about it.” In our book we have come up with a bunch of rules on how to live with technology in a way that you benefit from it, as opposed to using it indiscriminately.
McKinsey: Are there any habits or micro-habits mentioned in the book that you have put into practice yourself?
Nandan Nilekani: In the physical world, we take our cues from the external environment. A library, for example, is a quiet place for thoughtfulness, introspection, and work. At a party, you will have a drink and socialize. In the digital world, however, when you have 15 apps open on your device, they are all bombarding you with notifications, and you just get pulled in. We believe there are three states in the digital world that must be kept separate: the create stage, where you do deep work, thinking, and writing; the curate stage, where you browse and pick up information; and the communicate stage, which is about talking to people or messaging.
For instance, I have a [separate] laptop for my work, so the very act of sitting with my laptop is a cue that it is work time, and I keep all my other devices away. When I want to read or browse, I use my iPad. I only do communication on my phone. I don’t use social media [actively]; Twitter is only used as a way to broadcast my views or articles. I also have a zero-inbox strategy on my email.
McKinsey: As you look to the future, what excites you about technology and what concerns you?
Nandan Nilekani: A lot of new things are coming down the pike in technology, which is exciting, whether it is cryptocurrency, the use of blockchain, or the metaverse. But our job is also to use technology to benefit people, which does not necessarily happen all the time. In my view, if a billion people can use something, then that’s a benefit. A billion people can learn using technology. A billion people can get better healthcare using technology. A billion people can move around and change jobs using technology.
Things like the metaverse and Web3 are all nice buzzwords, but the final test is how they benefit people, because all this stuff can also go the other way. We have seen that social media has a huge ability to polarize people. To get engagement, social-media platforms feed people things they want to hear, and that gets them into a filter bubble. A lot of these apps are also very addictive. Artificial intelligence can also have a lot of bias in it, so one needs to tackle the issue of responsible AI. There are lots of things in technology that are very disconcerting and troubling. Our job is to try to ensure it gets used in a way that benefits people and protects us from the inherent risks involved.